It’s been 19 years since the first call came from a fledgling campaign to close a training school for Latin American soldiers at the U.S. Army’s massive Fort Benning complex in Columbus, Ga.
The campaign, organized by School of the Americas Watch, continued Nov. 20-22 with an annual vigil at the base’s gates and the arrest of four people who entered Fort Benning property in an act of civil disobedience.
The annual event commemorates the Nov. 16, 1989, killing of six Jesuit priests at the Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador. Their housekeeper and her daughter also were murdered. SOA Watch has said more than a dozen Salvadoran soldiers involved in the murders were graduates of the school.
Those gathered for the vigil and march want the Army school — formerly the School of the Americas and since reorganized as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — closed. The school’s critics say the school’s graduates use what they’ve learned to violate human rights.
The Army has consistently disputed that claim, calling it “a ludicrous accusation” and challenging the school’s critics to show a direct link between actions of former students and the courses taught, which cover due process, the rule of law, human rights and the role of military in society, among other areas.
Elsie Jackson, public affairs specialist at Fort Benning, said this year’s demonstration seemed more subdued than previous years, but said the cool weather may have thinned the crowd.
“The protest was very peaceful, as they usually are,” she said. “My compliments to the organizers.” She otherwise declined to comment on the event.
The four who were arrested are no strangers to the art of public protest. Nancy Gwin, 63, of Syracuse, N.Y.; Ken Hayes, 60, of Austin, Texas; Franciscan Father Louis Vitale, 77, of Oakland, Calif.; and Michael Walli, 61, of Washington, all entered not guilty pleas in court Nov. 23. Their trials are set for late January.
Columbus police estimated this year’s crowd at about 4,800. SOA Watch spokesman Hendrik Voss disputed the number, placing the gathering at between 10,000 and 15,000 people.